This book offers a comprehensive overview of real film sets. It describes sets, locations and other aspects of filmmaking in Egypt, highlighting the labour hierarchies within the production process and the mediation of digital technology.
Basing his research on participant observation and semi-directed interviews with on-set workers, technicians and artistic crew members, the young anthropologist Chihab El Khachab analyses the future of film production and the films’ imagined audiences. His writing, he says, is the product of concrete labour as much as “anticipations, anxieties, funny moments, generous assistance and encounters in Deleuze’s sense”.
El Khachab is a young scholar engaging with the broad field of Egyptian culture, which encompasses cinema, television, popular culture and even comics. He was born in Cairo but moved to Montreal with his writer parents May Telmissany and Walid El Khachab, who after earning their PhDs there stayed on.
Chihab obtained his own PhD in anthropology from Oxford University in 2017, working as a junior research fellow at Christ Church for four years (2016-2020) before becoming a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Easters Studies at the University of Cambridge. His academic work is widely published in journals like the Visual Anthropology Review, Anthropology Today, the Arab Studies Journal, the Middle East Critique, and Arab Media and Society , but he has also written on Egyptian politics and culture for a less specialised audience in both English and Arabic.
On arriving in Egypt to do his research El Khachab had only three contacts in the film industry: Safaa El-Leithy, Jennifer Peterson and Hala Lotfy. But it was the general manager of New Century Film Production Ahmad Badawy who let him into the set of Ahmed Abdallah’s Décor (2014). He also became involved in Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s Ward Masmoum (Poisonous Roses), participating in writing the screenplay on Saleh’s request. El Khachab distills this into six chapters delineating both his own research process and the process of film production.
He addresses the most significant topics in the industry: the difference between commercial and independent cinema, labour hierarchies and interpersonal relations. Each chapter is preceded by a vignette that affords a foretaste of its contents. El Khachab presented the book at length in an online lecture hosted by the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
In the first vignette, “Inside Immobilia”, El Khachab is on his way to Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street to meet Ahmed Badawy, the general manager of New Century, the company that produced both Décor and Ward Masmoum.
A psychological drama, the film is shot in black and white in homage to classic melodramas starring the late Egyptian superstar Faten Hamama, which appear in the film in many occasions. It is the story of Maha, an art director working on a commercial movie set and married to a man named Sherif, who is suddenly transported into another life where she is a schoolteacher with a nine-year-old daughter married to a man named Mustafa. The confusion between the two worlds persists for the duration of the film, which never show which is the real one.
As well as Ward Masmoum, El Khachab focuses on Décor, citing it as the central example all through the six chapters, in order to engender a sense of familiarity and continuity the better and the more vividly to demonstrates his ideas. El Khachab spent 18 months between 2013 and 2015 closely observing the project, and his account covers preparations and shooting as well as postproduction. Most of the workers he met on set were friendly and cooperative, willing to help and be interviewed.
On the set of Décor, line producer Ahmed Farghalli jokingly named El Khachab Mr X (after the hero of comdian Fouad Al-Mohandess’s 1967 espionage spoof X: The Most Dangerous Man in the World) due to his stealthy presence and quiet way of taking notes. Crew members did not know what an anthropologist might be doing among them, and so the name took on.
On the set of Ward Masmoum, where El Khachab was known to be Badawy’s friend, director Ahmed Fawzi Saleh called him El Doctor (as in “the professor”), eventually asking him to assist him and help him rewrite the screenplay. In addition to these two case studies, El Khachab also briefly attended preparations and shooting on the set of other New Century productions: Qitt wa Farr (Cat and Mouse, 2015), Qudrat Ghayr Adiya (Out of the Ordinary, 2015), and Al-Nabatshi (The Night Shift Host, 2015).
In the opening chapter, “Industry”, El Khachab gives an overview of the history of Egyptian cinema since its emergence as an industry in the mid 1930s with Studio Misr in Al-Haram, founded by nationalist economist Talaat Harb in 1935.
Ahmed Abdallah’s Décor
The hub of the film industry, Studio Misr was primarily a production company that quickly turned into a giant film industry conglomerate, owning filmmaking infrastructure and facilities as it became a focal point for commercial film production. Al-Haram became the capital of the film industry, and film bodies and institutions – the High Cinema Institute, the National Film Institute, Studio Nahhas and Studio Al-Ahram as well as production, distribution, casting, equipment rental and postproduction companies – were headquartered in and around it in the Guiza governorate part of Greater Cairo.
El Khachab recognises four critical periods in the history of the Egyptian film industry: mid-1930s to late-1950s (the Golden Age); late 1950s to early 1970s (during which time the industry was nationalised); mid 1970s to early 2000s (when Open Door economics liberalised the film economy again); and early 2000s to the present (a time of changing patterns of finance and transition to digital technology).
El Khachab also dedicates part of this chapter, “Into the New Millennium”, to the boom in the film industry of the early 2000s. In Ismailia Rayeh Gai (Return Ticket to Ismailia, 1997), a new kind of comedy starring the then emerging comedian Mohamed Heneidy, the film industry achieved a level of success unprecedented for the longest time, which paved the way for a new film industry scheme for the next era, presenting to this industry a new generation of stars: Ahmed Helmi, Ahmed Al-Sakka, Mona Zaki and Mohamed Saad.
Since the early 2010s, El Khachab argues, film financing in Egypt has relied on individual investments. Under the subtitle “An Interpersonal Political Economy”, he explains how, after close observation of hiring patterns, it turns out that all workers in the Egyptian film industry either have a personal connection with their hirer, or know a person who knows them. In some cases, he adds, workers have a list of achievements that makes their names circulate widely, making them hirable.
One of the book’s most astute points is in the distinction between commercial and independent cinema. El Khachab coherently articulates some questions about that distinction and whether it is in opposition to mainstream production patterns, mainstream sources of funding, or mainstream stories and plotlines?
El Khachab poses these questions after making his main argument that the idea of independent cinema was enforced by a group of filmmakers in the late 1990s as an alternative to the mainstream. They are followed by quotes from Hala Galal, Tamer El-Said, Mohamed El-Tohami, Hala Lotfy and Ahmed Fawzi Saleh, all of whom are either filmmakers and/or producers in the independent field, and it is interesting to note that each has a different view of what independent cinema constitutes.
El Khachab’s own argument is simply that groups in the film industry that have connections to the sources of giant productions are called commercial while those unable to reach such sources are called independent.
In the second vignette, El Khachab describes preparations for Décor in November 2013, when the production crew were searching for the right place to make Maha and Mustafa’s apartment. This serves to introduce El Khachab’s thorough analysis of the division of labour, modes of apprenticeship and operational sequence involved in film production.
One thing El-Khachab is fascinated with is the labour hierarchy. He describes how workers call their superiors “ya rayyis” (which translates to “chief”) while said superiors address them by their names or nicknames. On the set of Décor, crew members followed Ahmed Farghalli’s commands religiouslywhile he answered to no one. But there is also a class component in the hierarchy. There are workers and chiefs, but there are also blue- and white-collar workers, the former – sanai’iya or manual labourers – referring to their chiefs as “usta”.
But conventional assumptions about class in the film industry are not always true. Not all drivers come from working-class families and not all crew members have had the benefit of higher education. Sometimes educated people can be found at the base of the pyramid while those hailing from the working class can make it to the top. A further distinction within the labour hierarchies is made between creative, artistic and technical, logistical work.
Another issue tackled in the context of inequality regarding women and how underrepresented they are in the field. This distinction between masculine and feminine labour goes beyond the film industry, of course. Yet women are strongly present in the field in direction, cinematography and mostly as costume script supervisors, stylists, editors as well as makeup artists.
In the third chapter, “Reserves”, El Khachab gives an overview of technology and its use in the film industry which includes digital technologies like mobile phones, laptops, tablets, LCD screens, cameras and USB cables and how these tools are replacing simpler alternatives like paper, analog electronics and heavy machinery. His insight is that technology in the form of commodities and reserves is essential to understanding how outcomes are mediated and why they can be imponderable.
El Khachab then goes into the coordination process, considering budgeting, scheduling and even the details of transportation and how essential avoiding delays is during the shooting process to stay on schedule and within the budgeting plan.
In his final chapter, “Enchantment”, as Décor and Ward Masmoum are seen as artistic films inside the industry, El Khachab analyses a given film’s imagined audience. An artistic movie is by default expected to be screened at film festivals, preferably international ones, so its audience is expected to be different from that of a commercial film.
Enchantment is a state in which the targeted audience is compelled to what is their enchanters tell them to. This tests the enchanters’ ability to impress the audience with their artwork. Filmmakers will produce a product they feel is impressive to their imagined audience to attract them in the hope of revenues or artistic praise.
The last vignette in the book is called “The Afterparty”, and in it El Khachab tells the story of his attempt to enter the screening of the film Décor at the Cairo Opera House when it was overbooked during the Cairo International Film Festival; the crowd is huge and no one is being allowed in, but when Farghalli sees him El Khachab immediately gains access.
At the end of his book, El Khachab reviews his own work, describing his analysis and interpretation as “not definitive”. He explains that, when this book started as a PhD dissertation, he wanted to make a contribution to the anthropology of media and mediation, his argument being that anthropologists have not paid enough attention to the daily use of technological devices in the creative processes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly